The scene of a shooting in early October 2019 in DeKalb County. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Torpy at Large: Want scary? DeKalb 2019 homicides already a record

Flip on the local TV news any given morning and you’ll likely see images of flashing blue lights and crime tape outside an apartment complex with an announcer saying, “An overnight shooting in DeKalb…”

A check of statistics indicates there is indeed something scary happening in DeKalb — so far this year, the county has set an annual record for homicides. And it did it before Halloween.

As of Thursday, there have already been 103 homicides in the county. (It would be 113 if you count the “justified” killings.) The homicide rate is about 40 percent ahead of last year’s and ahead of neighboring Atlanta, which had 83 as of Oct. 20.

This is nothing new. In 2017, Atlanta passed the unwanted title of Georgia’s Murder Capital to DeKalb, although Atlanta snatched it back last year.

This is obviously very unwanted, and DeKalb is trying what it can to shake that designation. I’ll let CEO Mike Thurmond get to that later.

Also, all other crimes in DeKalb are down.

Maintenance workers found a burned body on Feb. 28, 2019, at a DeKalb County park. The body was discovered by a dumpster at about 7:30 a.m. at the Southeast Athletic Complex on Hillvale Road near Lithonia, DeKalb police told AJC.com. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

I called Jeff Wiggs, a DeKalb cop since 1987 and head of the local Fraternal Order of Police, to pick his brain as to the reasons for the carnage.

“That’s a hard one,” he said. “If you knew, you could win the lottery.”

“Are the cases domestic? Are they stranger-on-stranger?” he asked, adding that the latter “are the ones that concern people. That could be you.”

It is difficult to figure out why people kill each other. And it’s hard for police departments to stop them. There are many individual reasons why people kill. In essence you look at the cases, end up with some trends, and try to put together a plan. Police forces have been doing such strategizing since Cain and Abel.

Usually, people will kill someone they know, whether it be a family member, an acquaintance, another gang member or a rival drug dealer.

As head of the Fraternal Order of Police in a department where cops are running from call to call to call, Wiggs naturally believes that manpower is part of the equation.

“You don’t blow through a stop sign if you think you’ll see a DeKalb County officer,” he said.

And I suppose you won’t whack someone if a cop is around the corner.

He said the department continually loses veteran cops to other suburban departments that offer more money and less stress. He said last time he looked, DeKalb’s department had about 700 officers, almost 300 short of what the fraternal order thinks would be copacetic. The county says there are 751 sworn officers.

Joel Edwards, a retired MARTA bus driver and local activist, knows the anguish of violence. His son Justin, a 34-year-old logistics manager for Lockheed, was shot to death last year in Atlanta when he was changing a flat tire. The case remains unsolved.

“I’m hearing there’s a lot of young folks with illegal weapons,” said Edwards. “Some of them have been coming from Atlanta. DeKalb County has become a haven for criminals.”

Police and crime scene investigators stand by on March 18, 2019, as two vehicles are towed from the scene where a man was dead and another was in critical condition after a shootout over a woman in DeKalb County, Channel 2 Action News reported. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Part of it is social and demographic change, he said. “With gentrification and high rents in Atlanta, they’re pushing out low-income folks to DeKalb,” he said. “That’s causing crime problems here.”

Edwards said the killings darken the image DeKalb has been trying to brighten for a decade. “If this continues, we’ll have a serious problem in the county in the future. We’re already having problems getting companies to come because of the school system.”

Thurmond, DeKalb’s top official, agrees somewhat with Edward’s assessment. County governments “were not structured to address urban inner-city problems. DeKalb, at least portions of it, has become urbanized,” the CEO said. “There’s no quote, unquote ghetto. But there is a large amount of low income.”

Thurmond’s spokesman later called back to say the CEO meant to say, “economically disadvantaged residents.”

Thurmond, a veteran pol who has been a legislator, as well as the head of the state’s Labor Department and DeKalb’s school system, was both defensive and expansive in an hourlong interview. In an email to me, the county noted that Atlanta has a higher per capita homicide rate. That’s because the two regions have a similar number of killings but DeKalb has a population of about 750,000, while Atlanta’s is 500,000.

He noted that DeKalb’s overall crime rate is down this year in double-digit percentages — other than killings, that is.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

“Homicide is disaggregated from the crime rate,” said Thurmond, sounding like the former professor that he is. “So what is going on? It’s just weird. I wish I had an answer. I don’t. There is no magic elixir.”

Part of the reason for the high number of homicides was a devastating April, when 20 people were killed, he said. The county provided monthly homicide totals dating back almost six years and April was the worst.

“This is not a trend, this is an outlier,” Thurmond told me. “If it wasn’t for April, you probably wouldn’t be doing the story.”

“What is a trend is what’s been happening these last five years,” in which there has been an average of about 7 killings a month,” he said.

Thurmond added that those totals were disturbing too.

The county says two-thirds of the victims and perpetrators in the April killings knew each other. A quarter were cases of domestic violence. And 20 percent involved drug activity.

Thurmond said if you associate with or are related to people who are violent and are engaged in risky behaviors — drugs or running on the streets — “then your odds (of a bad outcome) increase precipitously.”

So, what to do?

Thurmond said the county is trying to engage a “holistic, more data-driven” approach. He said more money has been allocated to deal with domestic abuse cases. Also, the county wants to hire more cops.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond (center) looks on as newly appointed DeKalb Police Chief Mirtha Ramos (right) introduces herself to DeKalb Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Melody Maddox (left) before a press conference at the Manuel J. Maloof Auditorium in Decatur on October 7, 2019. Ramos, formerly of the Miami-Dade Police Department, is the first woman to be chief of police in DeKalb. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“If you focus just on homicides and never get to the cause, you won’t get at the root of it,” he said.

Also, he noted that DeKalb just hired a new police chief, Mirtha V. Ramos, from the Miami-Dade Police Department.

The chief, who starts soon, is a “phenomenal leader” who will have “fresh eyes on an old problem,” Thurmond said.

It’s not unlike a struggling football team getting a new coach. The future always seems optimistic then.

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